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Schiff Gives RFID a Whirl

The vitamin maker has integrated RFID into its pack-and-ship processes, enabling the company to read EPC tags as pallets revolve while being stretch-wrapped.
By Beth Bacheldor
"IBM allowed me access to their lab in Raleigh, and we sat down and worked on it for three days," Farrimond says. "We weren't sure whether we'd be able to read the tags on a pallet wrapper, or whether we would have to push the pallets through a portal [to get tag reads]." Concerns included whether the motion of the stretch-wrapper—which features a turntable that spins a pallet as the machine winds plastic stretch-wrap around it—would interfere with the signal. Complicating matters, Farrimond notes, is that when the pallet is rotating, the orientation of the RF signal to the reader is unpredictable. "We talk about RFID as being completely orientationless, but it is not."

Numerous tests were conducted, including multiple scenarios to find the right tag, reader and reader-tag combination. IBM and Schiff then built a structure similar to a half-portal with one reader and four antennas, able to read the pallet and case tags while the pallet is being stretch-wrapped. Once the tags have been read, the pallet is shipped on to Wal-Mart.

For now, Schiff will keep its RFID implementation as is, but Farrimond says the company expects to expand its use of RFID in the future. Schiff hopes to tightly integrate the RFID middleware with its back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) software so it can automatically create advance shipping notices (ASNs) to be sent to customers when the pallets ship. With ASNs and back-end integration, Schiff would be able to quickly and accurately investigate and respond to credit requests from customers complaining that their cases or pallets were incompletely packed. "This helps us work with Wal-Mart and other customers to know that the customers got what we sent them."

Deeper integration of RFID data with Schiff's back-end systems will also enable the company to create product pedigrees. A pedigree, either paper- or electronic-based, documents the movement of products up and down a supply chain, verifying that the product is authentic and deterring the introduction of counterfeit goods into the supply chain.

In addition, Schiff is keeping an eye on initiatives in the pharmaceutical sector, including item-level tagging, though Farrimond acknowledges item-level tagging is much further away in the company's future. Schiff is regulated by rules developed by the U.S. Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements (ONPLDS), a division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Currently, the FDA is advocating the use of RFID to create pedigrees for prescription drugs in an effort to combat drug counterfeiting and improve drug safety. However, it has not issued similar recommendations for nutritional supplements.

Schiff, like other companies, will continue to monitor RFID's progression in the supply chain, and will pay close attention to RFID's return on investment. "RFID is one of these initiatives where ROI will be seen in top-line growth," says Farrimond, explaining that although RFID can't be tied directly to increased sales, it can contribute to a more efficient supply chain—and that can be tied to increased sales.

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